Vengeful, kickass females are definitely one of my favorite genres and this one delivers in spades. I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into because from the premise, it sounded like a wild fantasy novel, but it is so much more!
The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.
When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected–she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.
To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way–and stop more girls from being sacrificed.
I was so shocked by how incredible this book was. Honestly, the story was so creative and blended Chinese history, tradition, and culture seamlessly into this science fiction world of mechs and monsters. It felt like what really good anime should be like; a story overcoming obstacles in a world that’s fitted for a bygone time that doesn’t suit modern thinking and beliefs anymore. I loved it. I love it when authors blend cultures to create new stories that not only uplift the worlds, but also defy it in many ways.
One of the main themes, I believe, is strength. Not just a physical strength because our main character didn’t have much of that (having bound feet, she’s not capable of walking without pain), but mental strength. Zetian’s ability not only to push her limits, but also her qi power to kill her male counterparts makes her one of the most interesting characters in the entire story. Honestly, I loved Zetian. She’s one of those main characters you want to see charging into the scene and kicking ass. I also loved that she had Shimin as well, who has a secret past within the military and unlike any of the other male characters in the story. I think it says something when I want to punch every man in the face.
I was totally surprised by the romance as well. I don’t want to give it away, but I thought it was going to go one way and it went a completely different way. Not mad about it, but intrigued by why Xiran went that route. I hope that the romance starts to get deeper in the next few books!
The action was so good as well! I loved how the mechs worked and the mechanics of the Hundun and how the yin and yang of their qi powers come together on this ethereal plane to power up the chrysalises. It really felt like I was watching an anime and I can’t complain about that.
As much as I loved this story and will be following the rest of the series, I felt like there were two major issues with it: it was too fast paced and it introduced a lot of information with very little explanation. I felt like if Xiran took their time to really pace the novel, they could have material for several books throughout the series. But for some reason, it was all mushed into the final 100 pages and that felt…weird. The pacing throughout had some really good themes with the way women are portrayed in this world, especially when the truth is finally revealed. It felt a bit abrupt that even more pieces were being introduced that could have been used in other books in the future. Even the ending ended with a cliffhanger that surprised me because it was so soon to be introducing something, but also delighted me because it makes me ache for the next book.
Overall, a really good start to a fantastic new YA series. I’ll definitely be following along and seeing what happens to Zetian, the world, and the secrets!